Sinn Fein northern leader Michelle O'Neill meets members of the public as she canvesses at Kennedy shopping centre in Belfast. (Photo: Charles McQuillan via Getty Images)
If the polls have it right, Northern Ireland could be on the brink of seismic change.
Ever since the Protestant-majority state was found a century ago after the republic of Ireland’s independence from Britain, its governments have been led by unionist politicians who defined themselves as British.
But one recent survey had Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), with an 8-point advantage ahead of Thursday’s election for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
If the Irish nationalist party which seeks union with Ireland comes out on top for the first time in the province, it would represent an historic shift 24 years after the Good Friday peace agreement ended three decades of sectarian bloodshed.
Sinn Fein, once a political pariah, would be closer to becoming the lead party in government on both sides of the Irish border, and the debate around Northern Ireland withdrawing from the United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales would intensify.
Who are Sinn Fein?
The party has long been linked to the IRA, a paramilitary group that used bombs and bullets to try to take Northern Ireland out of UK rule during decades of violence.
But Sinn Fein in 2022 is led by a younger generation of politicians with fewer links to the IRA and Northern Ireland’s Troubles, when 3,600 people were killed.
A milestone triumph at Stormont this week shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Sinn Fein was just one seat behind the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the biggest pro-British party, in 2017. The party is also well placed to win elections in the republic of Ireland, which are due by 2025.
United Ireland downplayed
While a united Ireland is Sinn Fein’s over-arching aim, the issue has not been central to its campaign efforts. Instead, and in common with most elections set against the cost of living crisis, the focus has been on bread-and-butter issues. Constitutional goals are so little mentioned that Irish unity takes up just one page in the 17-page manifesto.
Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, said during a televised election debate she was not “fixated on a date” for a unification referendum.
“The things that the public want us to respond to is trying to put money in their pockets to help them deal with the cost-of-living crisis,” she said.
How would it work?
If Sinn Fein does make history, it could trigger a constitutional crisis.
Under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing system, created by the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the jobs of first minister and deputy first minister are split between the biggest unionist party and the largest nationalist one. Both posts must be filled for a government to function.
The DUP, which has been the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly for two decades, has suggested it might not serve under a Sinn Fein first minister.
The new elected politicians will meet next week to try to form an executive. If none can be formed within six months, the administration will collapse, triggering a new election and more uncertainty.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, smiles while out canvassing in Holywood on the outskirts of Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo: via Associated Press)
Is Brexit an issue?
Brexit bolstered the case for a united Ireland after a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, and the controversy over post-Brexit customs and border checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK has prompted anger.
The arrangement was designed to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, a key pillar of the peace process. But unionists say the new checks have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines their British identity. The instability has led to rising tensions and sporadic violence.
The DUP also says it will refuse to join a new government unless there are major changes to the post-Brexit border arrangements under the Northern Ireland Protocol.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said during the TV debate: “The political institutions must be sustainable. And that means we have got to deal with the big issues that are in front of us, not least the harm that the Northern Ireland Protocol is doing to undermine political stability in Northern Ireland.”
How the state of the parties has changed in the last three elections. (Photo: PA Graphics via PA Graphics/Press Association Images)
Changing politics in Northern Ireland
Voting along strict tribal lines is crumbling as more support is going to parties that identify as neither nationalist nor unionist, with young people increasingly rejecting the traditional labels.
A collapse in support over the last 18 months for the DUP has paved the way for Sinn Fein to take the office of first minister, and polls showed that even the cross-community Alliance Party could catch the DUP – an unthinkable prospect five years ago. Anger over the post-Brexit checks is set to spilt the unionist vote share more widely this time compared to 2017.
Nonetheless, pro-British parties are using Sinn Fein’s push to withdraw Northern Ireland from the UK, and a potentially divisive border poll, to galvanise support.
Is re-unification inevitable?
The immediate effects of a Sinn Fein victory are likely be symbolic, and there’s very little certainty about any path towards a united Ireland.
Even if Sinn Fein were to win in the Republic, there could be problems forming a government there too. What’s more, nationalists with the upper hand on both sides of the border could deter less hardline voters from backing re-unification.
It is also solely up to the British government under the terms of the 1998 peace deal to call a referendum if they believe a “yes” majority looks likely. Opinion polls have consistently shown most voters in Northern Ireland favour the status quo.
But it’s not inconceivable to think a united Ireland could soon become as dominant an issue as independence is in Scotland, and the future of a United Kingdom is put in great doubt.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.